Lincoln

PhotobucketBefore I even begin, let me assert, Daniel Day-Lewis is more Lincoln than Lincoln. Beyond a mere performance, he is a complete embodiment of the man. Physically, it was never a question. The actor already suggests the man with his angular features. The makeup is invisible as if this is how the actor has always looked. But aside from his amazing physical transformation, which we expect to be authentic, is the astonishing emotional transformation. He portrays Lincoln as a humble and wise man with a couple well-placed examples of humor. Day-Lewis’ decision to pitch Lincoln’s voice high and thin is speculative at best. We do not have video records to tell us how he spoke and acted. Yet debating whether the performance truly reads Abraham Lincoln is pointless without definitive records in this area. What is relevant is that he unquestionably embodies his temperament. Day-Lewis perfectly conveys the attributes one would anticipate of a man who would lead a nation through one of the most turbulent periods of American history. There’s never a moment in which we the audience doubt his depiction. Most everyone’s work is exemplary, but inconspicuous. Two performances that do scream “notice me” are Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, a fervent abolitionist, and Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln. They’re hard to miss. Lee Pace is also worth mentioning as the charismatic, but comparatively more understated, Fernando Wood, a Congressman whose sympathies lie with Confederacy.

This is not a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The adaptation is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. However where that novel dealt with his entire presidency, including his first term, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have decided to simply focus on the final months of his life in 1865. Lincoln has just been re-elected. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued a year and a half ago. As an executive order of the president, its controversial nature is brought up. It made ending slavery a war goal, although the measure itself did not outlaw slavery. This then is the account of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment and subsequently hasten the end of the Civil War. The amendment has already passed in the Senate, but failed ratification in the House of Representatives. He has now brought it back to a vote. Of the 150 minutes, the events largely deal with Lincoln’s reaching out to the House of Representatives to find the support he needs to pass the Amendment. His many exchanges with his cabinet shed light on his beliefs. Lincoln’s attempts to reconcile conflicting personalities within various legislative factions are what constitute the action.

Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis. He is extraordinary in the part and the actor’s contributions cannot be underestimated. He is virtually flawless in re-creating a President that we admittedly have never seen nor heard. Every choice he makes with his portrayal is impeccable. Volume, inflection and gestures are utilized to maximum effect. In Lincoln’s efforts to galvanize Congress in support of the 13th amendment, Day-Lewis make discussions interesting. He is utterly believable in his abilities to persuade and he makes a rather dry subject come alive. You have to commend Spielberg’s chutzpah. The plot isn’t set on the battlefields of the Civil War, but rather the political chambers of Washington. Lincoln unfolds much like a play with copious words spilling out of the mouths of old white men from the floor of the House.  Occasionally you can see the perspective of a modern mind behind Tony Kushner’s dialogue. For example, since it has been established that the Gettysburg address was “the speech that nobody knew” for years after it was uttered, Are we really to believe that four soldiers would be able to recite it back to him verbatim like fanboys? It is a most uncommercial movie in that it wrings drama simply over the deliberation of an idea. Lincoln’s desire to obtain 20 Democratic votes (or abstentions) for the 13th amendment IS the action as it were. Whether you find such a topic fascinating will determine your enjoyment. Personally, I think it’s an easy film to admire, but a difficult one to love. It is very much a history lesson with a message lovingly crafted and made clear by Mr. Spielberg. Still what the director endeavors, most assuredly sets it apart from any other dramatization about the 16th President.

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27 Responses to “Lincoln”

  1. Scott Hobin Says:

    Very interested to see this one! I loved his performance in “there will be blood”

  2. Mark:

    As usual, you have hit all the main points on the head. To love this film, you will need to be interested in history, or perhaps even American history. Daniel Day-Lewis was superb as usual. It’s easily the best performance I have seen so far this year. I admired everything about it while failing to love the subject itself, and so I am not sure whether I will ever own the Blu-ray. I will never own The Iron Lady, despite Streep’s flawless performance.

    • The Iron Lady is a good comparison. Although I gave them similar ratings, I think Lincoln is probably a better film. The decision to simply focus on this one aspect of his Presidency is at least a fascinating decision, whereas the choices The Iron Lady makes don’t seem to be as intellectually minded.

  3. Good review Mark. Very good film, just a bit long and slow at some points. However, the brilliant cast makes up for that and I can definitely see some nominations for Daniel Day, Jones, and Fields by the end of the year. And you know what? I’ll have no problem with that because they’re all good.

    • I foresee at least a nomination for those actors as well. Daniel Day Lewis would seem to be a front runner to actually win the award but those things can change quickly.

  4. Sorry you were so disappointed with this one. Even with high expectations, I loved it. We’re in agreement that Daniel Day-Lewis was flawless, but I personally thought it was Spielberg’s best since Schindler’s List. It was just an incredible subject matter that I found absolutely stunning and informative. Clearly wasn’t just textbook information, and it was exorbitantly enjoyable. Brought my mother (who saw it with me) and me into a long conversation about what the world would be like today if not for the 13th Amendment, and how revered Lincoln would actually be in that case–the entire car ride home, 30 minutes, starting at 9:20 at night. That, for me, is a greatly thought-provoking movie. So much that I almost completely forgot about the scene in which the two soldiers were reciting the “Gettysburg Address” verbatim (I did notice it, and it didn’t seem at all probable), until you mentioned it.

    My review will be posted Wednesday. More on it then–took me two and a half hours to write about, and I only know because I was up till 12:30 AM!

    • On the contrary, I was never disappointed in the film because I went in with very guarded expectations. I could tell from the trailer that this was going to be a history lesson. The film over delivers on some aspects: Daniel Day Lewis is even more engaging than I expected. However film’s narrow focus is a bit didactic for my tastes. This is a 2 ½ hour film about how Lincoln played the political game in order to get the House to pass the 13th amendment. I certainly didn’t “enjoy” this film in the way I enjoy a film like Skyfall or The Dark Knight Rises for example.

      • I see what you’re saying. It’s a quiet drama indeed, but the subject matter is one I find VERY fascinating. It’s definitely didactic, but not textbook information. I recommended it to my 8th grade American History teacher, and she loved it just as much as I did, it sounds.

    • I would be shocked if any history teacher did NOT love this film. It’s practically crack cocaine to that segment of the movie-going public

  5. Great review. I don’t want to predispose myself, but I don’t think this movie is for me. Even though Lincoln’s actions were commendable, I don’t find these topics very interesting. And I’m not the biggest Spielberg fan out there. At least I’ll have the acting to look forward to. Huge fan of DDL and from your review (and a few others), he knocks it out of the park yet again.

    P.S. Love Lee Pace’s name in this movie 😉 hehe

    • Ah yes, Fernando. Lee Pace is so good in this. He’s not as showy as Tommy Lee Jones or Sally Field, but still very memorable as a Confederate sympathizer.

      If you aren’t at least mildly interested in how the wheels of the political machine are greased, I’d skip it.

  6. Expertly written and summarised Amigo!

    Glad to read that Spielberg resisted the urge to infest the proceeding with treacle! Actually, I think setting the movie in the final few months of his life was probably the best wat forward – a full autobiography would perhaps take away from the detail of key political battles.

    I was always sure Daniel-Day Lewis would be spectacular – however, it IS interesting that we’re lavishing praise for the portrayal of a man that has little recorded about his actual manner/habits/personality – apart from what we infer from his achievements and photos. I’ll certainly be watching this come January 25th (Uk release date)

    I note that an earlier poster compared this to “The Iron Lady” – having not seen this yet, but judging from your review – the two movies are leagues apart – Iron Lady really did not do the story of Maggie justice by skirting over key events and lumbering it with a very saccharine plot device!

    • Praising Day-Lewis for his spot on portrayal is odd, but he’s just so magnetic in the part. His Lincoln just feels natural. It’s as if they exhumed Lincoln from the grave, re-animated the body and handed him the script. You cannot help but listen to his words and be transfixed.

      With regards to The Iron Lady, you’re right. Both couldn’t be more different narratively, that‘s true. However . I think the valid comparison is more based on the brilliance of the portrayal in a flawed film, rather than the nature of the drama itself.

      Expect to see Day Lewis’ name as a nominee and possibly even called when the winner is announced come Oscar time.

  7. Youre completely right to rave over Day-Lewis’ performance. He was incredible, there’s no denying it. It WAS very much like watching Lincoln come to life on the screen.

  8. Still haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about this movie.I don’t think I had a doubt in my mind as to whether Daniel Day Lewis would succeed in the role. I was more concerned about an interesting story, but I’ve also hear that’s solid. Makes sense that at points it sounds like a play considering Kushner is a playwright by trade and not a typical screenwriter.What I couldn’t believe was that the movie was whittled down from a screenplay that was originally 500 pages.

    • The film is absolutely packed with dialogue. It’s one of the most dialogue intensive movies I’ve seen and at 2 ½ hours it can get a bit heavy. If there is a larger script out there and the film makes enough money, could a prequel be in Lincoln’s future? Kidding! (sort of).

  9. You know, the more I think about this one, the fonder I become. I can’t say I expected that.

    • Spielberg’s / Kushner’s take on Lincoln’s life is original in its focus and that is admirable if nothing else. It’s definitely one of those films to ponder.

  10. I was completely mesmerized by this film. I loved the focus and enjoyed the whole process of how the 13th amendment passed. It was long and very talky, but I didn’t mind it. And yes, Daniel Day Lewis was Lincoln. 4 stars

  11. Great review! I must say I wasn’t interested in seeing it but ever since I read Pace is in it I’m definetly going to – great to see him mentioned in your review. I just hope it will be better than War Horse, though it would be hard to shoot something worse 🙂

    • Aw! I really enjoyed War Horse, but back to Lincoln. Lee Pace is a scene stealer as a Confederate sympathizer and foil to Lincoln’s 13th amendment. He make the villain surprisingly charismatic – not an easy task.

  12. I just happened upon this article:
    http://www.fansshare.com/news/steven-spielberg-to-correct-lincoln-errors-before-dvd-release/
    Hope one of the errors Spielberg corrects is (as you mentioned) the Gettysburg Address! :/

  13. Actually I thought the review was great, and three stars is probably about right, but I happen to disagree with some of the points made, and, if only for the sake of variety, SOMEbody’s got to register a different point of view about this exercise in engineering the past. There IS such a thing as propaganda, and encouraging worship of the nation’s saints is a pretty popular reason for indulging in it.

    Lincoln DOES fool the public, after all, disregard the Constitution, get around those annoying limits democracy imposes on potential dictators by bribing elected representatives, rely on enforced servitude to keep his army up to strength and brush aside initiatives to end the war early. According to the script, he’s motivated in all this mostly by his desire to get the 13th amendment through the House before the war ends rather than afterward (as was to happen with the 14th). The interesting thing is, even though we only see these points through sort of a verbal haze, the writers do allow a lot of them to come to light, and they let Lincoln actually admit to a some of the tricks he’s been pulling, although he does it with such lack of remorse you might not realize he’s making a confession. And, of course, they also give him all the words he needs to justify the means he’s used to achieve the end he’s after, as well as deliver the clinchers in any arguments he has with people who object. As a matter of fact though, all sorts of other things were going on at the time, compared to which the legislative progress of the 13th amendment was a minor detail – things having to do with civil liberties, the rule of law, what justifies war and what doesn’t, what a war’s costs and consequences are likely to be, and what the rules are by which one ought to be conducted and concluded – all of which are relevant to evaluating what you see people doing on the screen but that the script doesn’t bother to go into.

    The question you wind up asking yourself is, do I like this guy or not? Just about the only thing the writers bring out in his favor is that he’s against slavery, but that doesn’t distinguish him from most of the rest of the population. Personal charm? Audio-animatronics would’ve given a boost to the personality Lincoln puts on display in this film. He’s so under-animated in some scenes, he seems on the verge on senility. Sense of humor? I’d go along with the secretary of war on that: if Abe had launched into just ONE more of those six-minute anecdotes that are completely irrelevant to whatever’s being discussed, I would’ve walked out too. Just to keep the audience from getting restless, the filmmakers should’ve brought in somebody to coach Lincoln’s impersonator on how to put a joke across.

    Whatever the man was actually like, there’s got to have been more to him than was allowed to emerge in this overly reverent exercise in after-the-fact justification. Next time somebody decides to have Abe show up on screen, I hope he can bring himself – maybe for the first time in movie history – to violate the rules of patriotic etiquette and pick a script that has PEOPLE in it instead of a bunch of wind-up dolls some school teacher took off the shelf of historic convention.

    • I think Spielberg’s decision to focus on such a narrow segment of Lincoln’s presidency gave him some latitude. If it seems “there’s got to have been more to” Lincoln than this, perhaps it can be justified by the fact that Spielberg’s intention was not to give a fully formed biography of the man but merely the examination of an idea.

      P.S. Honestly, I’m not sure the real Mr. Lincoln had any idea of how to put a joke across either. I still think Daniel Day-Lewis’ “impersonation” is pretty fascinating.

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